Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
The White liberals who cry and march for George Floyd would shit their pants and call the cops if he came near them . . . Abbott’s Frozen Custard in Rochester, N.Y. is the best in the universe – end of story . . . Margaret Sanger, the unhinged founder of Planned Parenthood, attended seances to contact the dead children she had abandoned . . .
Is there a more annoying song than Hey Jude? . . . Whites are fleeing US cities at a record clip. So desperate are they to escape the coming race war that they are buying houses in rural America sight-unseen . . .
The electric vibrator was invented to save the wrists and fingers of 19th century psychiatrists who spent much of their time masturbating neurotic, middle-class women to calm them down . . .
The straightjacket was used to prevent the insane from masturbating themselves bloody . . . The Kellogg Brothers were 7th Day Adventist fanatics who invented cold cereal as an anti-masturbation food . . .
If the Chinese ever get the whip hand in America the Blacks will scream, “Come back, Whitey. All is forgiven!” . . . Other Orientals call the Chinese, “The Jews of the Orient” . . . Next time you’re in New York avoid Little Italy; there are no Italians left and the food is poison . . . But visit the nearby Tenement Museum to experience the “White privilege” enjoyed by European immigrants . . . Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee ballplayer, dropped out of the 1961 home run race with Roger Maris coz he got an infection from a botched VD injection . . .
Mickey got his clap shots from the same “Dr. Feelgood” who injected JFK, Nixon and most of Hollywood and Washington. We still don’t know what the good doctor was putting in his “vitamin” shots . . . Question: Does anyone actually read Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou? . . .
They were filmed in an old open-air silent film studio on a Bronx rooftop that had been enclosed for TV use . . .
I never liked or believed Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas or Rock Hudson . . . Lancaster was in Harvey Weinstein’s league as a sexual predator . . . The Broadway composer Richard Rodgers was another notorious sex creep . . .
In the early 20th century, Atlanta was the center of silent film production. Then the Jewish movie moguls fled to the West Coast to avoid paying patent money to the gentile Thomas Edison . . . I don’t care what vegans say, there’s nuthin’ better in life than a rare prime rib with a baked potato and salad . . . Lucca and Gubbio are my favorite Italian towns. And, you can give me Siena over Florence every time . . . How can it make sense to social distance getting on and off a plane but sit cheek by jowl on the flight? Youth wants to know . . . George Floyd did five years for holding a gun to a pregnant Black woman’s stomach while his partners in crime stole everything she had . . . When’s the last time you saw a man smoking a pipe? . . .
Laurence Olivier’s Richard the Third is so good it hurts. He based his villainous make-up on the vile Broadway producer Jed Harris and the Big Bad Wolf . . .
Ya think Rush Limbaugh will grow a pair before he dies and tell the truth about Jewish power and influence in America? . . . The great “commie-killer” Senator Joseph McCarthy is the most vilified and lied about figure in American history. He was rough but he was right. And the decrypted Cold War messages sent from the Soviet Union to its Washington embassy prove how right he was . . .
Be-bop sucks and Charlie Parker is the most over-rated figure in American popular music . . . Tell me something, why do so many doctors wear bow ties? . . .
Read Bruce Jay Friedman! He’s a darker Woody Allen and a funnier Philip Roth. He’ll make ya laugh and wince at the same time . . . Dames with spaces between their front teeth are instantly endearing . . . Women shouldn’t be cops, firemen or soldiers and men who serve must meet stricter height and fitness requirements . . . The Antifa-BLM riots revealed how out of shape our police and National Guard have become . . .
Most of the Old Testament stories including Adam and Eve and Noah and the Ark were stolen from the Egyptians and Assyrians then cut and pasted together . . . The chief Biblical redactor was a female scribe in the court of King David . . . With any luck I’ll go to my grave without having read Marcel Proust or J.K. Rowling . . . In his best moments, Jerry Lewis was as funny as anyone. The rest of the time I want to slap him. Same with Lou Costello . . .
The Empire State Building was built in one year in the depths of the Depression! One year! Think about that! . . . Homeopathy and chiropractic are quackery and so is “European-style” osteopathy. But American osteopaths are actual doctors. Their medical schools haven’t been devalued with affirmative action admissions. So, if you’re in America and want a good doctor get an osteopath. He’ll have OD after his name . . . German Village in Columbus, Ohio is the prettiest neighborhood in America . . . Abstract-Expressionism was funded by the C.I.A. and like “conceptual” art it is nothing but a money laundering scam . . .
In my last post, I wrote that the comic Mort Sahl said, “Lenny Bruce knew people use The Prophet by Gibran to get laid.” Not so. Lenny said it himself . . . But Mort did have the brilliant line, “In my younger days, I dated actresses and other female impersonators” . . . But enough about Meghan Markle.
I love reading good books – especially good books set in New York. I’m guessing you do to or you wouldn’t be here. And, I’m guessing that, like me, you love discovering book stores built over basements bursting with used books and then hunting and coughing your way through the dusty stacks.
I even have a recurring dream of descending into an imagined basement in a Manhattan slum and finding the used book store of my dreams. (Literally of my dreams.) For years, I’ve been returning to this seemingly limitless catacomb.
The great joy of being a book hunter is stumbling over a new author, subject or world. Here are some of my most treasured discoveries –
Psychic Dictatorship in America
by Gerald B. Bryan (1940)
An insider’s exposé of The Mighty I Am. This spiritualist cult was popular in the 1930s and is still around. The money-mad Ballards gave birth to many imitators and set the template for the entire New Age movement complete with fairies, fruitcakes and frauds. On orders from the Ascended Masters, adherents murdered their pets. No foolin’.
Instantaneous Personal Magnetism
by Edmund Shaftesbury (1933)
Tips published by the International Magnetism Club based in Manchester, England. Chock full of lifesaving information on nerve tensing, magnetic foods, wet clothes, thin shoes and fidgets. Hey, these guys were from Manchester and that’s good enough for me. Betcha they were Masons, too.
Adventures with Vending Machines
by Ray Burkett (1967)
The “straight skinny” from one-who-knows on how to make millions stocking gumball machines in garages and paperback book racks in drug stores. With special chapters on, condom vending machines, pay toilets, the salted-in-the-shell peanut racket and the ever-fraught subject of vending in negro locations.
Analism Among the Poor
by Preston Harriman(1970)
Harriman’s oeuvre includes: Analism Among the Poor, Analism Among the Rich, Anal Girl, From Adultery to Analism and Oral Aunts. (Preston was either hungry for a change of pace, or had a very friendly aunt.) Sadly, I’ve found only the one work by Harriman but I live in hope. Still, I’m not sure I’d shake his hand at a book signing.
But what does all this have to do with Joe the Engineer, I hear you cry. This –
You know how it is – your moving down the used book aisle, head tilted sideways, giving yourself scoliosis, scanning the book spines when a title catches your interest. You never heard of the author. The cover and blurbs intrigue you. You read the first sentence and next thing you know the clerk is telling you the store is closing. You blow the mildew from your lungs, brush the cobwebs from your clothes and head up to the cashier clutching gold-in-print.
That’s how I found Joe the Engineer by Chuck Wachtel (1983). I stumbled over it in the used book basement of the original Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City. I found Francine Prose, David Markson, Charles Portis, Sam Lypsyte and Tom Perrotta in similar basements around the world. (They haven’t written any “Brooklyn” books so I’m not featuring them on this blog. But, if you are a fan of dazzling prose, do yourself a favor and read them. Trust me. Just do it.)
Anyone who has read my memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn will know that my opinion of the neighboring Borough of Queens is not high. Since Wachtel’s book is set in that hellhole, it’s not a “Brooklyn” book. But, since I grew up surrounded by “Joe the Engineers” and might have been one myself, and since it validates everything I’ve written about Queens and since it is so damn good and since this is my blog and I can do whatever I wanna do – I’m gonna do you a favor by making it my Brooklyn Book # 5. (So there.)
Joe the Engineer is quite simply one of the truest and most moving novels of working-class life ever written. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Joe is a Vietnam vet stuck in a dead-end job reading meters in Queens basements and living in Richmond Hill – the same dead-end Queens neighborhood where he grew up.
Joe is saddled with half-assed intelligence and half-assed dreams. And, Wachtel does a masterful job of capturing the mind of a person who isn’t fully conscious of the “how and why” of his miserable state but senses that something is wrong somewhere. The working class is full of such “canaries in a coal mine.” The media loves to mock them when they are inarticulate in their rage and confusion but I’ve always heard them loud and clear.
I’ve heard them because I am one of them. My antenna has always been finely attuned to pick up snide condescension from the elites. (That’s what cost Hillary Clinton the election. White workers ain’t dumb ya know.) So, I appreciated how “working-class Wachtel” applied his writer’s eye to our shared caste without snobbery or sentimentality.
I especially enjoyed listening to Joe’s thoughts as he read his customer’s lives while reading their basement meters. I saw him as a blue-collar Howard Carter mining the minutiae of ancient Egyptian life from hieroglyphs though in Joe’s case it is from ancient wall calendars and broken toys.
I found a 1983 radio interview with Wachtel – the year Joe was published. I was pleased but not surprised to learn that one of Chuck’s literary models was Hubert Selby Jr. whose Last Exit to Brooklyn is one of my Brooklyn Books. I was less pleased and surprised that Wachtel sounded prissy and academic. And when he blithely stated that America was a “mulatto” nation, my antenna started twitching. “Mulatto” is code for White genocide. It’s shorthand for “Death to Joe the Engineer.”
Happily, in 2020, “mulatto” is still not the norm in America and race-mixing is frowned upon by the vast majority of all races. (Don’t believe me? Listen to minority talk radio.) And, it was certainly not the rule fifty years ago despite Wachtel’s best wishes. However, due to the subversive work of those condescending elites (whom Wachtel chastised) and their fellow-travellers like, ironically, Chuck Wachtel himself, the Joe the Engineers of Richmond Hill and the world are being replaced.
Yes, the solidly White working-class Richmond Hill, Queens to which Joe returned after being used as cannon fodder in Viet Nam is now not open to his kind. For Richmond Hill, Queens is now known as Little India-Guyana-Trinidad and Tobago.
I eagerly sought out and read Wachtel’s other works which include poetry but, for me, Chuck is a one-hit-wonder. Still, as with those other liberal half-wits I’ve reviewed, Alfred Kazin and Pete Hamill, I’m gonna cut Chuck Wachtel some slack coz he wrote a beauty. Do yourself a favor – read it!
There seems to be a movie in the works but I fear they’ll kill the book with politically correct crap. Betcha the supermarket check out girl is Black or Muslim. And, probably cast with Chuck’s approval. Never mind – “I hereby pronounce Joe the Engineer an honorary Brooklyn Boy.”
Pete Hamill and I grew up side-by-side in working-class, Catholic, Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Pete – Irish. Me – Italian
That last distinction was the biggie. For as much as I admired and even feared the Brooklyn Irish; and though we lived cheek by jowl, I felt they were alien to my tribe. Sharper. Colder. Meaner. And, lots, lots drunker.
I can’t remember ever seeing an Irish parent being warm and affectionate with one of their children.
It was the Irish parents who mocked their kids and blackened their eyes; the Irish parents who drunkenly fell off bar stools and tenement stoops; the Irish parents who got thrown into the aptly named Paddy Wagon to be hauled away by Irish cops.
It was the Irish mother upstairs in our tenement who got her sluggish sons out of bed by throwing pails of cold water over them. It was the Irish father upstairs who chased one of those same sons out of their kitchen window only for the terrified kid to go sailing past our kitchen window as we ate dinner.
My childhood impression, formed in countless games of stick ball, tag and Monopoly, was that all Irish kids had fiery tempers and green teeth. I also learned that all Irish nuns had cheeks forever reddened with fury. No lie, it seemed like all of Irish Brooklyn was constantly plastered and pissed-off.
So, for me, Hamill’s memoir was an insider’s lowdown from the enemy camp – one that confirmed what I felt as a child about his kith and kin. In A Drinking Life, he spills his guts on himself and his breed with bittersweet affection and brutal honesty. This is a brave, brilliantly observed memoir that captures the feel of 20th century urban American life as well as any I’ve read. Pete’s description of the VE Day celebrations in Park Slope brought me to tears. The way he conjured his proud, angry one-legged father made me see and feel the man as he limped up the street to the corner bar.
Pete Hamill and I played in the same streets, rode the same trolleys, hung-out in the same parks, fought in the same playgrounds and gorged in the same ice cream parlors. I suffered a year of weekly piano lessons from a terrifying Irish nun at Holy Name School where Pete suffered the full-time fury of the Sisters of Perpetual Rage.
I even bought movie tickets from Pete’s mother at the local itch-house.
Yet, no matter how similar our childhood landscapes, we were separated not only by ethnicity but by politics.
Pete – Left. Me – Right.
Pete Hamill became one of New York’s premier newspaper columnists and bleeding-heart liberals. Like his contemporary Irish columnist, the insufferable douchebag-blowhard Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill loved playing the “muck-raking White knight” fighting for what he believed was equality but what I knew was actually White replacement.
In the 1980s when Brooklyn was stewing in crack-fueled racial violence, Hamill sided with Black Brooklyn against White Brooklyn – specifically Italian Brooklyn. He sneeringly called we Italians fighting for our survival, “guidos” which was tantamount to calling Blacks, “niggers.” I’ll never forgive Hamill for being a race traitor.
Irish drunks are a dime a dozen (and a fuckin’ bore) so Hamill’s saga of bottoming out before straightening out, though well told, wasn’t for me. I much preferred his bawdy, Henry Miller-like tales of being a budding beatnik artist. Those were full of fun period details and read like Tropic of Art School. Besides, a little sexual braggadocio never hurts. In fact, Brooklyn and braggadocio go together like sausage and peppers.
And, hey, if you were playing “hide the shillelagh” with…
You’d braggadocio, too!
So, this social-justice leprechaun wasn’t averse to a bit of jet-setting at Elaine’s and P.J. Clarke’s. (Somehow I doubt he ever squired Tawana Brawley to either boîte.) And yet… like Alfred Kazin (the subject of my last post ) as much as I wanted to smack Hamill in the chops for his silly knee-jerk liberal bullshit, I couldn’t help liking the guy.
I’d love to sit down with him over a beer (Oops, better make that a root beer) not at Elaine’s but at Farrell’s – the legendary Irish working-class watering hole in Park Slope. We could stay off politics and shoot the shit about the nuns, the priests, the gangs, the girls, the Irish Mafia, the Italian Mafia, Coney Island and especially the Dodgers. The Brooklyn Dodgers.
Alfred Kazin (1915-98) was a noted Jewish critic – one of my least favorite literary types. I’m not a fan of that species because it’s part of the Jewish monopoly on printed media. (Don’t believe me? Check the names on the mastheads of every magazine and publishing house in America but… be careful. Many of those Anglo-Saxon sounding names are not genuine. Name changing is part of the Hebraic shape-shifting ploy called passing.)
The Jewish critics rave about members of their own tribe (often without merit) while neglecting more talented gentile writers. And, they only promote philo-semitic authors. Plus, their view of literature is hopelessly tainted by their Jew-centric perspective. So, to put it mildly, there exists an unbridgeable political, religious and cultural gap between Alfred Kazin and I.
And yet… I gotta say that I loved Alf’s memoir of growing up in the Jewish ghetto that was Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, I couldn’t help liking the guy. Go know. I think it’s that undefinable “Brooklyn” thing that bonds us.
A Walker in the City is Kazin’s elegantly written collection of character studies, incidents and musings. It brims with colorful tales of rabbis and radicals, great books, great music, great meals and great awakenings. The reader senses Kazin walking himself into adulthood and consciousness. His love of Brooklyn, literature and his people permeate every page. I admire his own writing more than his criticisms of others.
Don’t get me wrong. I bristled at much of what he wrote but he did such a great job of writing that I cut him some slack. Hey, I’m easy. So, sue me.
I owe Alf a debt of gratitude because his memoir was one of those that inspired me to tell the story of my boyhood across the borough in Italian-Catholic Brooklyn. That said – our takes on race, religion, sex and politics are as diametrically opposed as his Brownsville is from my South Brooklyn.
It’s a sad but predictable irony that all of the Marxist and liberal bullshit about class and race preached in the streets and synagogues of Brownsville (and described so brilliantly by Alfred Kazin) failed. Bigtime. Marxists embedded in the city government used Marxist principles to replace the Jews of Brownsville with the Blacks of Brownsville. The result? After “70 count’ em 70” years of those Marxist ministrations, Brownsville is the murder capital of New York City.
The area was never a garden spot but now it is a no-go zone of hellish housing projects. It makes Flatlands and East New York look like Cap d’Antibes.
The few Jews left in Brownsville (even fans of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela) have become the prey-of-choice for roving gangs of feral youths playing the “knock out game.”
Never mind… if you enjoy reading memoirs written with wit, style, brain and heart then have I got a Brooklyn book for you – A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin.
The late Thomas Boyle was a Pennsylvania kid who spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. (That makes him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy in my opinion.) He graduated from Cornell, earned his doctorate at NYU and taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Some book review sites confuse him with the more famous T.C. Boyle the author of many brilliant novels including The Road to Wellville – set in a 19th century health-spa and Drop City – set in an Alaskan hippie commune.
Our Thomas Boyle’s last book (published in 1990 in the midst of his crime trilogy) was Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead – a study of Victorian crime fiction. It sounds like the Sherlock Holmes mystery Conan Doyle forgot to write! I’ve added it to my “must read” list.
Any fan of gumshoe fiction will enjoy Boyle’s modern yet faithful reworking of the much-loved archetypes and plot devices of that often hackneyed genre.
Anyone who knows the geography of Brooklyn will get an extra kick out of Boyle’s locales. His hard-boiled tales follow Detective Frank DeSales as he chases bad guys down hidden alleys in Red Hook, across garbage strewn vacant lots in Williamsburgh and even onto the hallowed ground of Green-Wood Cemetery.
If you like Lawrence Block’s ex-cop now “private dick” Matt Scudder, you’ll feel right at home with Thomas Boyle’s active duty detective Frank DeSales. They are brothers from another mother.
I can’t find any movies or TV shows based on this trilogy which is a shame and surprising. For decades now, “All things Brooklyn” have been all the rage. Go know!
Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.
The Christmas blues of 1970 morphed into the January blues of 1971. I and my fellow “cultural casualties” of the 1960s having dropped out of college and dropped far too many psychedelics were facing the prospect of a lifetime of blue-collar work in the Post Office.
Yeah, yeah, it was a job-for-life with uniform and pension but not quite what we had envisioned for ourselves just a few years before. Back in college we were going to be actors, writers, musicians, poets, painters, philosophers even. But, the luster had faded from our Age of Aquarius fantasies as it had from the few sorry strands of Christmas tinsel that hung from atop the mail sorting coops.
We were a motley crew but not without our talents and charms. Alex was a half-assed genius and chess master. Mark was a poet and fluent in Latin. Murray was a killer wit and killer blues guitarist. Sandy was trying to decipher the hidden codes in Dylan’s lyrics. And, Charles, our only Black member, was trying to convert everyone at the Post Office to 7th Day Adventism and vegetarianism. We were all from working class families and had discovered to our shock and horror that unless something miraculous happened we would not escape the gravitational pull of our caste. So, we embraced our fate.
As if on cue and without any spoken agreement, we took to wearing plaid, flannel work shirts, tattered jeans, garrison belts and battered work boots. We cut our freakish hair back to a moderately radical length. Less Woodstock. More Workers of the World. We trimmed our facial hair to Lenin length. And, we embraced the Grateful Dead’s album Workingman’s Dead as if it were written only for us. After all, we were nothing if not workingmen.
One of the worst aspects of being a trainee mail-sorter was that we weren’t guaranteed hours. If the mail dried up we were sent home. And, this often happened shortly after we had clocked on for our graveyard shift. There we’d be in midtown Manhattan at Midnight having planned to be up all night and having ingested amphetamines to help us be up all night but suddenly with no reason to be up all night. Luckily, Alex lived in a nearby East Side tenement so we’d pick up some munchies and beer and head over to his pad, there to smoke hash and listen to Workingman’s Dead till dawn’s early light. Or, at least, till Alex’s neighbors banged on the walls. We named ourselves the Dead Workingmen. (Okay, not that clever but we needed all the help we could get.)
Suddenly, it became embarrassingly clear that Tony, one of our Supervisors, was madly in love with Sandy. I don’t think this burly Italian knew he was gay and he certainly wasn’t swishy in any way. But, goddamn, he was as queer as a three-dollar bill for Sandy. Lovesick Tony was eager to demonstrate to Sandy how powerful he was by how many favors he could do for him. One big problem. If he gave Sandy a break he had to give it to all of the Dead Workingmen or his cover would be blown. We teased Sandy mercilessly about his conquest but he still generously connived to use his charm over Tony to the group’s advantage i.e. without “coming across” for the Italian Stallion, Sandy kept him sweet on our behalf.
Some nights Sandy would persuade Tony to let us get lost for a few hours. We’d head over to Alex’s while still on the clock and then sneak back in at 8AM to punch out. Some nights at Sandy’s behest Tony would let us hide and sleep on the filthy mailbags piled out on the loading dock. Other nights he’d put us on parcel sorting duty – a welcome break from the din and dementia of the sorting coops.
We’d stand before rows of open mailbags and practice our basketball jump shots tossing boxes into the bags. Sometimes we even read the addresses and aimed for the right mail bag. Sometimes we even made a basket. But, truth to tell, we didn’t give a shit. We had come to hate the mail itself. Mark once tickled his throat until he vomited into the tray of mail he was sorting. (I know, I know, disgusting. But, you gotta understand that 99.999999% of the mail we were sorting was junk mail. And, the rest was going to Reverend Ike!)
Time Clock Confidential
I don’t know if anyone actually punches a time clock anymore. But when I first joined the world-of-work as a teenager, I was angered by the demeaning nature of this act. I was even more angered by the grown-ups who loitered by the time clock waiting for it to tick to a specific second so they could get a few paltry shekels more in their meagre pay envelopes. I was embarrassed for them and hated how they compared stories of time clock victories and defeats and of famous “time clock jockeys” of yesteryear. ThePost Office was full of these lifers who stared in amazement and clucked with disdain as I strode past them and punched out without even looking at the hour hand. Wage slaves. Not me.
Meanwhile back at the Tony-Sandy love affair things became waaaay too strange and sad for this trainee mail-sorter. It happened one night when members of the Dead Workingmen were surreptitiously tapped on the shoulder and told to report to Tony’s office. There we discovered the other invited guests were the usually unfriendly Supervisors. Tony had set up a movie projector and hung a sheet on the wall. He greeted us conspiratorially then locked the door, turned off the lights and showed us a stag movie i.e. the type of fuck-film that was usually confiscated if sent in the U.S Mail. I wondered if this film had been caught by an eagle-eyed postal dick and turned over to Tony.
As the silent, grainy, 8MM black and white film unspooled on the stained sheet, the air in the room became noxious with nervous laughter, unfunny quips and cigar smoke. We’d been invited to a classic “smoker.” The film showed a singularly unattractive couple reclining on a singularly uncomfortable table and fucking in a singularly unenthusiastic manner. Watching their coitus was as erotic as watching the piston action on a Ford V8. But, I sensed that a bizarre male-bonding ritual was at play. The Supers wanted to show us that they weren’t such bad guys after all. Hey, they were like our fathers and uncles – just a bunch of older working-class fellas who liked watching fuck-films with a bunch of younger working-class fellas. This secret screening was an olive branch extended across the generations and a sort of test.
Would we make the grade and join their ranks of Merry (albeit horny) Mailmen?
Also, except for Charles, we were all White as were the Supers. I sensed they wanted to find racial solidarity with us since they spent so much time with obese Black women with whom they shared little cultural interest. Least of all watching fuck-films.
I’m sure that shrinks would highlight what they’d claim was clear homo-eroticism in this sweat-lodge soiree. But, I don’t think that was what was going on with the Supers. Except for Tony. He turned on the projector, pushed me aside and sat next to Sandy. As the couple built to their inevitable climax we all watched in silence. Except for Tony. He giggled and elbowed Sandy while peppering him with questions in hushed rabid whisper.
“You believe the size of the cock on that guy?”
“Wait. Wait. She swallows the whole thing.”
“Look at that bush. You like hairy twat, Sandy?”
“Hey, Sandy, you ever put it in a girl’s ass?”
Then, after the “money shot” in which the on-screen stud splashed his semen all over his fair maiden’s belly Tony gushed – “Yeah, that’s the good part, right, Sandy?”
The Supers must have overheard Tony’s pillow talk but they didn’t react. Meanwhile, the Dead Workingmen shared looks of amused horror. Mainly horror. Then the lunch horn barked, the lights came on and with eyes cast downward we bolted out of there muttering, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?!”
Shortly after that night I was fired for telling an especially sadistic Supervisor to go fuck himself. The union jumped to my defense assuming that I wanted to keep my job. At the mediation meeting the union rep was dumbstruck when I told all present that the United States Postal Service could sort my job where the sun don’t shine. I thought about throwing the porn party in their faces but didn’t coz I knew that would make big trouble for Tony and the Dead Workingmen I was leaving behind.
Ten years later while walking in the middle of nowhere on Staten Island, I ran into Murray. (What are the odds?) We recognized each other even though he was now as obese as his female Black co-workers. Yes, he was still at the Grand Central P.O. but he was now a Junior Supervisor. No, he wasn’t playing guitar anymore.
It was an awkward encounter and a painful one for him. Murray and I had come from similar working-class backgrounds, two Brooklyn boys who had arrived at the same point via similar paths. Then our paths diverged. I had followed my dream of being an actor. He had buried his of being a musician. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to get together. We never did.
When I was a little shaver, my mother told my siblings and me the heartwarming story of a mother with many children who had killed herself on Christmas Eve. She put her brood to bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads then turned on the gas oven and laid down under the Christmas tree among the presents. That’s the way her children found her on Christmas morn. As a child, I wondered how she could bear to kill herself before opening her presents. But, with every passing Yuletide, I understood more and more why that mother had checked out in such ghoulishly festive style.
Christmas is a burden. A time of testing. A time of taking stock. And, woe betide anyone who comes up short. The pressure to be happy is overwhelming. Everywhere there are the iconic images of Santa, sleigh bells and snow; everywhere the glowing fireplaces, twinkling trees; everywhere the perfectly wrapped presents and perfectly formed snowmen.
And, the U.S. Post Office is one of the major purveyors of this Christmas myth via its nostalgic stamps and “mail early” missives. So, imagine my chagrin when December of 1970 found me working at the “Christmas coal-face” aka Grand Central Station Post Office – one of the largest Christmas card sorting offices in the world.
This was a time before emails, texting and twitter when people mailed each other Christmas cards to such an extent that the P.O. had to hire seasonal workers to handle the Xmas deluge. We sorters were buried under red and green envelopes for weeks and had to work tons of over time to make a dent in the never-ending flow.
I was then living in a dreary studio apartment in a dreary Brooklyn neighborhood without even a dreary girlfriend. Sadly, I couldn’t afford a Christmas tree to commit suicide under. (Hell, I could barely afford to pay my gas bill.) I needed the O.T. so I worked all the hours the P.O. threw at me. And, even though the Post Office closed for Christmas Day, I did have a shift on Christmas Eve.
That magical, candy cane night brought a heady party atmosphere to the usually grim sorting floor. The shift bosses cast off their usual Scrooge demeanours and donned elf hats and light-up reindeer horns. Most terrifying of all were the ancient workers (male and female) who stalked the sorting aisles brandishing sprigs of Mistletoe. These creeps had never smiled or spoken to me all year but were suddenly wagging their egg-nog-coated tongues in my direction.
The obese Black women who were “union-job-for-lifers” had years before commandeered certain sorting aisles as their private turf and held “INVITATION ONLY” office parties in them. They jealously guarded their paper plates covered with baloney and their Ritz crackers covered with aerosol cheese while they quaffed bottle after bottle of Colt 45 and Night Train.
Meanwhile, an oldies radio station blasted the usual rock & roll “Christmas classics” on heavy rotation. It also played Air Force radar reports of a mysterious, manned flying object that was tracked leaving the North Pole and headed for New York.
Just shoot me.
When our 4AM lunch break came, we were called to an open area where many of us climbed atop the towering mail machinery and dangled from it like Marxists seizing the means of production.
The sadistic fat-fuck who ran this P.O. suddenly appeared in a cheap Santa suit and arm-twisted a few of the obese Black women to sit on his lap. This much racial fraternization was a rare thing in 1970s America. Cue: A rash of awkward jokes about negroes and Noel.
Mercifully, several other obese Black females appeared in full Gospel choir drag to serenade us with their screeched renditions of Silent Night and We Three Kings. They finished their set with a sing-a-long of White Christmas. Cue: more forced racial jokes.
Then the back to work bell sounded putting an end to this Happy Holidays horror. At the end of my shift, I headed for the subway through a deserted Grand Central Station and wondered where I could buy a Christmas tree with gas jet attached.
Hallelujah! I passed the Post Office test with a gold star and was told to report to the massive Grand Central Station sorting office hidden behind the even more massive Grand Central Station. I quickly learned that working there was noisy, numbing, mindless, repetitive, soul-destroying drudgery. A shift was eight endless hours in a sweatshop under the blare of metal machinery, the glare of fluorescent lights and the stares of angry bosses and suspicious Black women who weren’t best pleased that a White-boy was on their patch. A White-boy who had passed the Post Office test first time. And, without special tutoring!
I was shown to my letter sorting station where I sat perched on a scoliosis-inducing high stool facing pigeon coops labeled with Zip Codes – 11213, 10751, 10001 etc. Like a touch typist, I was expected to know the Zip Code coop positions by heart, grab letters from the mail trays before me and deftly flick them into the correct coops without looking. Meanwhile, the slave drivers… er, I mean… shift-bosses strode up and down the aisle shouting at me to work faster. I noticed that they never shouted at the obese Black women perched precariously on their high stools with one hand in a mail tray and the other in a bag of potato chips gossiping with the obese Black women on either side. These union-job-for-lifers occasionally tossed a piece of mail in the general direction of the coops.
Trainees had to raise their hands and request permission to pee and then had to sign in and out of the toilet room. After a few weeks on the job, I was threatened with unpaid suspension for taking too many pee breaks. But, I wasn’t going to pee or to do a line of coke. I was going to splash water on my face to stay awake. I was working the “graveyard shift” – Midnight to 8AM. And, it was pure hell.
I would finish acting in a play downtown at 10PM then have two hours to kill before punching in at Midnight uptown. So, I’d join the other actors for a few beers and then head to work. I was never drunk but the hour and the alcohol conspired to make staying awake until 8AM a muthafucka. Round about 3AM, I would start fading and start my regular treks to the toilet.
Meanwhile back at the pigeon coops… one coop didn’t have a Zip Code. It had a name. That name was Reverend Ike – a Black televangelist who had become very popular in the early 1970s. And, no foolin’, the Good Reverend got so much mail he needed his own Zip Code!
Ike sported the processed hair and wardrobe of a pimp. And, like a pimp, he was all about money. But, he was also intelligent, articulate, witty and (I still believe) genuine. (As an actor, I admire all good public speakers and Ike was one of the best. You can catch his act and his suits on Youtube. Forget Creflo Dollar and all of today’s exponents of the “Gospel of Greed” coz Ike had ’em beat.)
Ike’s God wasn’t no welfare God. Ike’s God was a Maserati, mink coat and motorboat God. Ike’s God was The God of Bling.
I liked Ike.
I liked him coz he wasn’t a hypocrite. He wasn’t preaching sack cloth and ashes while wearing Armani. He wanted his congregation to wear Armani, too. (Jim and Tammy Bakker later practiced and preached this same holy excess. And, Joel Osteen has become America’s top televangelist with a white bread version of Ike’s message.) But, Ike’s theology wasn’t original. It was a mish-mash of Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill with a dash of the uber-pimp Iceberg Slim thrown in for good measure!
Ike had his congregation hold up and wave dollar bills while intoning, “I want money. I love money. Money is my friend.” He closed his broadcasts with a call for Love Gifts. Those were to be sent in an envelope simply addressed to –
Grand Central Station
New York , New York
The envelopes that I sorted into Ike’s coop (and I sorted lots every night!) were written in pencil, in shaky little-old-lady handwriting with many words misspelled and with backward letters. We mail sorters passed around the funnier versions. I envisioned Black little-old-ladies all over America waving their dollar bills at their TVs while intoning “I love money” then sticking the bills in an envelope addressed to “that nice young man” – Rev. Ike.
Some envelopes held nothing but coins but others held very large bills. (We held the envelopes up to the light and called out the denominations.) The bigger the bill you gave, the bigger the boat you got. Or, at least, that’s the way it was supposed to work. If your ship never came in then maybe you just weren’t gifting enough. (Okay, so Ike was a conman but he was a genuine conman – a very common character in American social, religious and political history.)
One night I was being lectured about Aesthetic Realism by the paunchy, prematurely balding Jewish guy to my right. He was working on a masters in Philosophy at Columbia. (There were a surprising number of screwy-scholars working at the P.O. and they all had theories about everything from Bauhaus to blintzes.) This particular genius was also a homosexual and he wasn’t happy about it. He explained to me how Aesthetic Realism would cure him of his compulsion to fist anonymous members of the public in public restrooms.
Aesthetic Realism was a psychobabble micro-cult founded by the Jewish poet Eli Siegel, who claimed that he could cure queerness. Aesthetic Realism enjoyed a Nano-second of popularity in the pretentious arty-academic circles of Manhattan in the early 1970s. But, I don’t think it ever made it across the Hudson. And, it was soon surpassed by the psychobabble sensation called est which was concocted by another Jew – John Rosenberg… er, I mean… Werner Erhard. He was a conman and not a genuine one. (What is it with these Jewish conmen and their psycho-cults already? But, enough about Sigmund Freud.)
So… anyway… I was half-listening to my conflicted colleague while planning my next trip to the toilet and praying he didn’t follow me in when… WHAM! Mr. Aesthetic Realism was pulled off his perch, handcuffed and dragged away kicking and screaming by a pair of plain-clothes postal cops. They’d been watching him for some time and caught him sorting mail meant for Rev. Ike into his own pocket.
There was no loudspeaker announcement acknowledging what had just happened. The guy was simply disappeared like a Soviet dissident. At the next coffee break the Post Office grapevine passed the news that not only were we being watched from above like gamblers in a casino but there were spies working among us posing as trainees and lifers. We were slaving in the Grand Central Gulag.